Reflections on My Years as Prime Minister


30 January 2008

Merci beaucoup, Mr. la president, Dr. Sean Riley, Dr. Grenier, mes amis, dear friends.

Tonight I'm very pleased to be here and I'd like to start to tell you that I'm honoured because many of my colleagues in the Senate and House of Commons are with us today. We have many senators, 6 or 7, former Members of Parliament, we have Roger Cuzner who is a member who was my parliamentary secretary when I was Prime Minister. And what a lot of fun he and I had before Question Period. I know that my colleague in the cabinet, Joyce Fairburn, a senator, she is here. And David Dingwall is here, too, who was minister for me and was my House Leader in the opposition and I am happy to salute to him. Of course, David has a very funny story. He could not make it at this university, so he had to go to Dalhousie.

For me, I want to tell you I was present at Senator MacEachen's retirement party on Parliament Hill when this lecture series concept was born. What a great idea to commemorate Allan MacEachen's contribution to public life and a great idea for St. Francis Xavier University. Everyone knows that this university is very well known internationally for its alumni, like Allan MacEachen for example. And many others. But, there is another alumnus who has been on television almost every day these days. He is a household name. We're used to hearing him pronounce on all major issues. He's a bit controversial, however. Some say he relies too much on his Irish blarney. Some say that he is little too comfortable raking in the cash. But, enough about Seamus O'Regan. (You know I have a problem with his name. This afternoon in reading my notes I said Sea-mus O'Regan.)

But I wanted to tell you I spent many, many years in the House of Commons with Allan MacEachen. He was there when I arrived in 1963. And he got me to come to Nova Scotia and here to St.FX. I will always remember my first visit, he took me to the National Park in his riding and we had a dinner one night, that first or second night. A local MLA, Dr. MacIsaac, was quitting politics. And most of the meeting was in Gaelic. So, they understood as much of my French as I did of their Gaelic. But during that period they gave me the idea of having a national park in my riding that has been a great success. Because for me national parks have been very, very important and I understand that [Green Party Leader] Madame Elizabeth May is here in the audience somewhere. She will run as a 'Green Liberal' and it is not without precedent. Allan J. will remember that when we were in Parliament we had, under Mr. Pearson, a member of parliament that always got elected in Kenora-Rainy River, Bill Benadicton, under the label of Labour Liberal. But he made the cabinet anyway, with Allan. Do you remember Allan? He was Minister of Energy, Mines & Resources. So my association with parks started here. I didn't know much about national parks. And I had the privilege when I was a member to be associated with the creation of double the number of national parks in land, in hectares of land, during my time as Minister of the Parks. And we re-doubled the numbers of parks when I was Prime Minister with Sheila Copps as Minister.

And probably I have to tell you what you should know about how politics works and I give you a story about a national park that pleased me very much. I was one day traveling in the north. I was Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, and parks were included in those days. I was the minister for these. So I was traveling in the north of Baffin Island, north of Penatang, in a plane going to islands north of Baffin Island. Everywhere in that beautiful valley, fjord on both sides, the ice caps and so on, and I was very excited about it and I was telling everybody, look! look! look! I was walking in the plane and they were looking, I didn't have to tell them but I was excited. So I sat down and I said to my wife, "I will make it a National Park in your honor." So the morning after that, Monday morning after that, I came back to my office. In those days, you know, it was a bit different than today. So I consulted the Minister of Northern Affairs who was myself. I consulted the Minister of Indian Affairs who was myself. I consulted the Minister of Parks who was myself. The three agreed. So I took the map and I made this sign there and passed the law and now we have a great national park in the North. Because I did all the proper consultation.

And, in politics you have to cater to your own province, your electors, your people. This is what Allan MacEachen did all his life. Roger Cuzner told me a story on the plane coming in. One day, someone inquired about Allan J, "how is Allan J. doing?" Roger said "fine." He said, "what about his back?" Roger said "I never heard he had a problem with his back." He said, "Oh, I heard he had a big problem with his back because all those years he was crossing to the island with a pile of cash on his back for the people." He was sometimes blamed because he understood that sometimes you have to intervene when the market does not intervene. And I was with him fighting for this program of regional economic expansion. And we were told, you know, by these guys from Upper Canada, on Bay Street among others, that it was not the right policy. But I have to tell you something and I use it when I'm traveling abroad, that in those days, the gap between Atlantic Canada and Ontario was 60 to 100. After these interventions by government, now the gap is 90 to 100. And it was, you know, normal. Of course he was blamed. Of course I was blamed because I had to do that a bit. You heard about it or read about it. But it was a duty as a Member of Parliament to represent the interests of our constituents, and we shall never apologize for that. As long as it is done within the rules of government, you have to fight for your people. And sometimes it continues and they ask you for great favours.

So one day in 1995, I was to be the host of the G-7 in Canada. So we looked at two cities, one was Quebec City and one was Halifax. So the people from Nova Scotia came to me and they said you have to go to Halifax. You know they will be forever grateful if you bring this G-7 in Halifax, and I did that. So Halifax became renowned across the globe. All the leaders were there. It was one of the best summits we had. You will remember that Yeltsin was there, and Clinton, and Chirac, shaking hands in the streets of Halifax. They could not do that anywhere else because of security. But in Canada they could do it in Halifax. So, you know, I was very pleased for that act of patronage I did for Nova Scotia and I received in the election of 1997 a great thanks for that - I lost all the seats in the province. So, that's politics.

And it was very generous the way Dr. Riley mentioned, you know that when I became Prime Minister in 1993, we were in a tough time. I'm not talking about the present because I'd like to but I'm afraid I'm not supposed to. But in the old days, there was an old saying in Canada, 'tory times are tough times'. So I arrived in that period in 1993 when we had, as you said, Mr. President, the deficit was $42 billion. The Wall Street Journal said that we were basically a third world nation. We were spending 37 cents in every tax dollar to pay the interest on the debt. It was not easy. People thought that we were hitting the wall, that the IMF was supposed to come any day to take over. And something had to be done. And, I said I'd do it. So after I explained what I wanted to do, you know, one of the cabinet ministers called his wife, and he said the Prime Minister told us what he has to do to put the country in good shape. So you can count that I'll be back home at the next election. And we proceeded. We had to do a lot of cuts and we had to reform a lot of things. And we have managed to do it. It was not easy because we're Liberal and we Liberals believe that government can be a force of good in society. But at the same time we had to be politically responsible.

You know, I was discussing that this afternoon with a new friend, Stephen MacNeil, who is celebrating today his first anniversary of announcing that he was to become the leader of the provincial Liberal party, so I want to salute him. You know, because a young man who decides to spend his life for any party, in public life, deserves to be complimented. Sometimes I was traveling during my political life and on some occasions the meeting of the Liberals was not good enough for me, because going to make a speech with nobody in the hall is not a lot of fun, and that happened to me a few times even here in Nova Scotia. Would you believe it? So, the reward was for me to go in the street, to try to find the committee room of the opposition or the government members who knew that I had pluck. So we walked there and I would say, how happy, I am looking for a crowd tonight. But I tell them I want to say thank you for devoting your time, you know, for public affairs because it is very important. So, I've done it many, many times and it is not always easy.

But we had to do a lot of things that were difficult. But when people ask me, traveling, how we managed to take that fiscal situation that was a disaster - 72% of the GDP was the national debt - and I said it was easier than you think, because Canadians are very responsible people. And if you explain that you are having a tough time, they will understand. And in spite of what I thought it was to be, that I was to be a Prime Minister for one term, I managed to win two more majorities after that. So I'm told that it is difficult now to have majority governments. I don't know why but it's a reality. But when we managed to balance the books, we came back with the Liberal agenda. And, you know we started to invest money in social programs. We divided the surplus in two parts. Half of it was to go for social programs. The other half was to go for reduction of taxes and payment of the debt. And we were quite successful. When I left in 2003, we had had seven balanced budgets and we had paid down $15 billion of the national debt. And since that time, we have to manage to survive with balanced budgets. Now, I'm less sure, but I'm not supposed to talk about it! But it is what we've done. Sometimes people remember, and sometimes they don't remember. But I'm happy that you do.

Mr. President, you mentioned what we've done for universities. It was not well known because I have to be very candid with you. Spending money on universities, you're not gaining a lot of votes. Spending money on matters of the heart, you're not getting a lot of votes. I used to say about hearts, especially for me from Quebec, the great majority of the artists, 90% were against me so I was not gaining a lot of votes. In Quebec they tend to vote Separatist, and in Toronto they tend to vote NDP, so it was not a good investment for me, but it was the right thing to do. And we did it.

Now the universities, in order to succeed and not to create jealousy, we did not make a lot of publicity. But today, it is one of the things that people of my government and my parliament are very proud of. The universities are not what they were and you testify to that Mr. President. The Chairs of Excellence, we have 2000 of them. I remember at the Progress of Governance meeting that we had in Burlington, Vermont - that's a group of so called centre-left politicians in power, we discussed that. And the British representative, you know the advisors of Tony Blair, came to see me to ask me what was the Chairs of Excellence. And I explained what we've done and they copied us. We have done 2000 and they did 50. But it comes to show that today all the universities are benefiting from that. And what was, in those days, a big issue, the brain drain - you remember that - has turned to a brain gain. Canadians who were abroad came back and non-Canadians came into the Canadian universities to fill these chairs. And this is not important only today; this is what will be Canada tomorrow.

You want to know how we made these decisions. We have to do something special for the millennium. We have to do something. So in Great Britain, for example, they built the big building. They don't know what in the hell to do with it today, now, but they did that. For me, I said no, we will invest this money that we have to celebrate into the brains of young Canadians, and that became the Millennium Scholarship Program. So that gave me satisfaction. I remember that in the discussion the Quebec government was opposed to that because they claimed it was an intrusion in the provincial domain. (If you want to know more about it, buy my book!) And, I had a discussion with Mr. Bouchard who said that it is not your business, education is our prerogative. And I said yes, you are in charge of the universities. You're in charge of the financing, the teachers, facilities and so on, but there is nothing in the constitution that prevents me from giving money to young Canadians to go into universities. And I said, "you're from Saint-Jean, I'm from Shawinigan. Some of your friends never had the money to go to university who might have been more intelligent than you and could not go there. And I know some who are more intelligent than I in Shawinigan who did not go to university. And there would be 25,000 young Quebecers every year that will receive this bursary - one of the thousands to get it across the land. And there is not a living soul who will stop me from doing that! You understand?" He said to me, "are you mad?" And I said, "no, I'm clear" - because you know, I love the Clarity Act!

And, you know, Allan was there. People think we cannot influence the society when we're in politics. But, one of the great moments was when Mr. Pierre Trudeau asked me, when he asked me to be Minister of charge of the Referendum and he gave me the constitution file. Because for a generation we wanted to patriate the constitution and could not succeed. And we decided to give all Canadians the constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms that has changed our society. So if people say that politics is not important, when you've been associated with projects like that, and you see now when you look around the globe that they look at Canada as an example of how to treat equality, treat equality in society. Of course sometimes people think that these rights go too far. But I have to tell you I would rather make a mistake in giving too many rights than in taking away rights.

We did a few things and Allan was with me when we had the privilege, Allan and I, of serving under a great Canadian, Lester B. (Mike) Pearson, who won the Nobel Peace Prize because of his solution to stop the war between Great Britain and France against Egypt - the Suez Crisis. You know, people sometimes say that we cannot be an influential country in the world, because we're smaller. Of course the situation in 2008, today, is not the situation of 1947 when all the countries in the world were on their back because of the war. Now the situation is completely different. You know, India, China, Brazil have become very big countries. Europe is, you know, for a long time now back on their feet and so on. But we can still play - as Pearson did - a role. And for me, I was pleased the other day there was a questionnaire in the Globe and Mail poll where they ask Canadians 'what happened important since the Nobel Prize of Mike Pearson in Foreign Affairs in Canada?' You know, after, there was peacekeeping in Cyprus, a peacekeeping presence in Bosnia and Rwanda, NAFTA, Landmines Treaty, Kyoto, International Criminal Court of Justice, the decision not to go to war in Iraq, and so on. But the three at the top of the list were, in spite of the pressure from the Americans and a few others, saying 'yes' to Kyoto. That was the third one. Number two was the Landmines Treaty. And the number one thing was saying 'no' to the war in Iraq!

I have to admit it was not a very easy decision. Because we do 85% of our trade with the Americans, so I was receiving tons of pressure telling me not to do that. Remember, you know, that at one time, at one meeting, they said the Americans would retaliate against us commercially because of that. And that was a weight for me but I asked this question. I said, "tell me what are the goods and the services that the Americans are buying from us that they don't need?" They never produced a list. And today, we're quite happy that we made that decision. We look good, but at that time it was not very evident. It was divided, with probably 90% of the editorial list against us on that. I was called all sorts of names. But one Maritimer, one day, sent me a letter and I refer to that in my book again. He called me one day and he said, Jean I want to apologize to you. And I said for what? He did nothing against me. He said, you don't know but when you made the decision not to go to the war in Iraq, I called you all the names in the book: stupid, crazy, fool, egomaniac, whatever. And today I'm calling you to apologize. He said you were right and I was wrong. It took quite a courageous man to do it but it will be remembered as one of the great moments for Canada. Why? Because we had clearly established at that moment, that Canada was a proud, independent nation who was able to make a decision itself. And it did not hurt our relations with the Americans too much.

In fact, I had very good relations with Mr. George W. Bush, personal relations. You know, on social programs, we did not agree so we did not discuss. And it was not my business what he's doing in the United States because he's against abortion, for hanging, and he is against gun control - things I'm on the other side of the ledger. So we did not debate it. And he was not very complicated. He had strong views. He expressed them quickly and I explained mine as quickly and we disagreed and started to talk baseball. Because you remember we had a problem with softwood lumber? They were not buying our softwood. I said to him one day, I said, you know George, if we were to stop selling you oil, natural gas and electricity, you would need a hell of a lot of softwood lumber to heat your homes. And I told him, you know, because he was president of a baseball club, and I know a bit about baseball - so I said to him one time, if you don't want to buy our softwood anymore, I would stop selling you hardwood. He was surprised. I said, do you know that the best baseball bats are made with lumber from the area around Ottawa and if we were to stop that, to stop selling that to your players, your stadiums will be half empty because it was with these bats that they were hitting home runs that took the crowds inside. (Now I understand there is a little steroid problem at the same time but I didn't know in those days.)

And Canada can play a role internationally, too. You remember when we had our second summit in Kananaskis. It is the moment that the fate of the people of Africa was front stage in international debate. I had invited all the representatives of Africa to come. The leaders of the G7 asked us in Canada and myself to lead the debate with the Africans to go there and negotiate what they call the Program of Management within Africa, with a reward if they do better than others and so on. And it was the first time that Africa became prominent and the centre of that. And apparently we are getting disengaged now and I'm very sad about it because it is not charity. This is a very rich continent. If we can help them to get out of their difficulties, the world will benefit. We look at what happened - you will remember we used to have the Colombo plan when we were young in politics. You young guys, you don't remember but we do remember - that's one of the privileges to be 47 in reverse. And what happened? Look now at the countries we were helping in those days. They have become the bankers of the world.

I was in China a few weeks ago. They have 1.2 trillion American dollars in reserve. It is not what it once was. So it is very important to get engaged there too. And when I was Prime Minister I met the president of China eighteen times. I was there two weeks ago. They got me to meet the former president and they made sure that I was meeting the next president and they announced it in the press, but we Canadians are not there anymore. The Australians have increased their number of offices to 22 and we're closing our offices there. We're not engaged there. Engage them! It is what I did. I always talked about human rights. What is that nonsense when they say that we did not. I was the first leader from the western world to make a speech at the University of Beijing on human rights with a question period at the end of it. But you have to engage them. China today is not the China of 15 years ago. When I went there the first time, there was virtually no television. Now you know that everybody on the street have tv's. They are open to the world. They don't have a democracy like ours and it will take time. But it took us a long time before having a democracy, too. Less than a hundred years ago, there was an emperor in Austria. There was a tsar in Russia. There was a king in Italy. There was a Kaiser in Germany. So this institution takes time. And they are making progress. And we have to keep up the pressure but at the same time we have to keep in mind that they are now the second biggest economy in the world. And within a generation they might be the biggest economy in the world and we understood that. It is not the time to close down. It is the time to be present. And don't mix religion with politics - it does not work. For me, how many problems I have because I am a Roman Catholic and I voted in favour of leaving women to decide about abortion - not men. (For me, you know, I am in favour of big families because as I said to the Pope in one of my meetings with him, I said, if the pill had been invented in 1933, I would not be around because I'm the number 18 out of 19 kids! And he laughed.)

Ladies and gentlemen, I would continue but I think you have some questions. Canada is a country that is not easy to govern - that is what people say. But when you travel around the world, you realise that our problems are not - as we French Canadians say - as bad as all that. We have managed to have a country that is, relatively speaking, very united. We have had our problems and we have overcome them. (translated from French)

In Quebec I live with this problem. You have more political scars than anybody because of my stand on that sovereignty issue. I have never been on the fence there. A lot of people tried to do all sorts of things to please. The problem is you have to have convictions and clarity. You have to know exactly what it is. And as I said on television in French a few weeks ago, it was rebroadcast last night, two nights ago rather. I said, I fought all my life to have equality for the French. And when we eventually put language into the constitution - Allan was with me when we did that with Mr. Trudeau - so when you have equality you don't ask for a special status. Women don't want special status, they want equality. So that was something difficult but you were asking questions on the referendum that made no sense, not in words. Do you agree that an agreement between this guy and that guy and law like this and that. Do you want to have a better deal? Yes or No? Of course you do. It was difficult to say no but it was confusing. So we passed the Clarity Act. Everybody was scared when we did that. Members of Parliament who were with me in those days, would report. But today, they [Quebecers] would be asked, be obliged to ask, a clear question. Do you want to secede? Do you want to separate? Yes or no? It’s just dishonesty this notion that I was anti-democratic because I said you will not destroy the country with a majority of one. You remember they said that of me? There is not one company that can take over the minority shareholders - if they did not have 75% of shares. You cannot replace the head of a union if you don't have two thirds of the votes. And we would let go our country because a woman forgets her glasses at home and votes the wrong way? Remember, I was blamed for that? We need a clear majority. But I think that now with the Clarity Act, we are in much better shape.

And what plagues me is that in my province - the young people are like the other young people of Canada - they look at the future. They prepare themselves for the competition of tomorrow. There's not one place where I don't go now and where some kids in some university aren't learning Mandarin, for example. We had said twenty years ago that the kids were to learn Mandarin in Canada. Two of my four grandchildren are learning Mandarin. They want to copy their grandmother who speaks four languages - for me I speak only two and the English is not that good. So, you know, it is a county of tomorrow and Canada is in good shape to face the future because of the values we have here. That is an example to the world. This ability of understanding, of sharing: these are Canadian values. Trust, it's a Canadian value. I was explaining to you what we have managed to do to reduce the poverty in Canada that was so big between the regions for so long. And here we live very comfortably with immigrants. We welcome them because we need them. We don't reproduce enough today. It is not the fault of others, it is us. We have to get working a bit more and it would be better but, you know, it is not what's happening. So we need people to come and fill the jobs that will be needed. With the baby-boomers coming soon to retirement, we might face a big problem about manpower. And when an immigrant, I would say when I'm traveling, because when I go to Europe, they always say how do you manage you guys, to have no big problems with immigration like they have in the States and so on? It is because we understand one thing: we need them. Canadians understand that. Second, we know that when they arrive they become a consumer the first day. They need food the first day. They buy clothing the second day. Eventually they buy furniture and a car and a house. And they are good consumers for ten years. It is kind of unfair but often they arrive in Canada and their education has been paid by a poor nation. And it is why we understand - because of our two official languages in Canada over the years, and our diversity, and our new respect for the First Nations of Canada. We have shown to the world that we can be different and equal at the same time.

For me, everybody knows I'm different. As I used to say, there is only Maurice Chevalier and I who ever had to practice to keep the French accent in English. So I used to make the joke that I don't have to have distinct society in the constitution, you have only to listen to me when I speak in English and you know I am from a distinct society. But all these qualities that we developed over the years make us an example to the world. And it's why all my career when I was traveling from one end of Canada to the other, I don't think that in my 40 years of public service in Canada, there's not one riding I've not visited once or twice. I always felt comfortable. Of course, some didn't like me. Some didn't like my religion. Some didn't like my language. Some didn't like other things. And, when I was looking at them, perhaps I had the same reaction. But, on the whole, we have shown to the world that it was possible to have a diverse society respecting each other, working together, making a country better. And during all those years, you know I always finished by telling the people of Canada, Canada is the best country in the world. Vive le Canada! Merci beaucoup.


Political Science Department

4th Floor Mulroney Hall
2333 Notre Dame Avenue
Antigonish NS B2G 2W5